Remembering Sister Nivedita (1867-1911)

Nivedita_1Sister Nivedita (1867 – 1911) was a famous and inspirational social worker and educationalist in pre-independence India. She is considered to have played an important role in raising national consciousness in India, becoming a relatively early advocate of complete Independence of India from British rule which included supporting the activities of freedom fighters. She is also one of the first persons of the modern age to have adopted Hinduism.

Her birth name was Margaret Elizabeth Noble and was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, on 28 October 1867. She was the eldest daughter of Samuel Richmond and Mary Isabel. The Nobles were of Scottish descent and had been settled in Ireland for about five centuries.

She became a teacher, and held a number of teaching posts before founding a school of her own – `Ruskin School’ in Wunbkedib. Her remarkable intellectual gifts made her a well known figure in the field of education.

Nivedita_2She was a religious seeker, whose search for the truth led her away from the strict dogmas of Christianity. Her seeking led her in 1895-96 to Swami Vivekananda’s teachings of the Vedanta (`Complete Works of Sister Nivedita’, II 471). Later in India she followed the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, and was particularly devoted to Kali and Shiva of the Hindu deities.

She came to Calcutta on 28 January 1898, was initiated into Brahmacharya (a celibate yogic order) and was given the name `Nivedita’ by Vivekananda on 25 March.

Over time she became intensely active in her work of uplifting India. She opened a school for Hindu girls in November 1989, joined plague relief works of the Ramakrishna Mission from March 1899, went abroad in July to collect funds for her school, formed “The Ramakrishna Guild of Help’ in America, went to Paris in July 1900 (where Vivekananda attended the Congress of the History of Religions), left for England alone in September 1900, and returned to India in February 1902.

Sister Nivedita’s interest in the Indian political struggle for Independence led her to be disowned from the Ramakrishna Order after Vivekananda’s death in July 1902. Sister Nivedita’s work however continued, undeterred. She went on lecture tours throughout India from September 1902 to 1904 to inspire more Indians to work for the uplift of the country in all fields; which included a renaissance in the country’s spiritual and cultural traditions.

The supreme goal towards which Nivedita worked was to see India emerge as a self-sufficient, strong and confident nation. Initially Nivedita stated that she desired to see England and India love each other, and did not intend this to necessarily mean full Independence from British rule (`Sister Nivedita’ by Atmaprana, 1967, p. 59). But later she was embittered and disillusioned by witnessing the effects of British policies in India – in particular the resultant famines and the effects of British education policies in creating an alienated class of Indians. From 1902 onwards she spoke and wrote against the British policy in India, and actively supported revolutionary forces to fight the British with arms.

In 1905-06 she was actively associated with all manner of Indian public affairs; but the strain of her efforts in the relief work in the flood and famine-stricken areas of East Bengal in 1906 broke her health. In August 1907 she left for Europe and America, and returned to India in July 1909. She went to America again in October 1910, and returned in April 1911. In October 1911 she went to Darjeeling where she resided for a while, but over time her health continued to deteriorate, and she died on 13 October 1913.

Nivedita wrote extensively and has left behind a legacy of works which are worthy of study today. Her innumerable articles were published in journals like the Review of Reviews, the Prabuddha Bharata, the Modern Review, etc. Her first book was `Kali the Mother’ (1900). Of her principal works the `Web of Indian Life’ (1904) gives a more positive picture of traditional India, compared with the harsh criticisms of everything Indian which were then in vogue in English literature, and the `Master As I Saw Him’ (1910) is an interpretation of Vivekananda’s life and teachings.

She attacked British politicians such as Lord Curzon for the Universities Act of 1904, and for his brazen insults frequently hurled at Indian culture and people, and for the clear attempts to incite Muslims in order to retard the Indian freedom movement. She was distressed by the disastrous condition of Indian economy and held British Imperialism responsible for it. Her politics became active and aggressive and she lost patience with moderate politics of the petitioner. Yet she was friendly with leaders of all schools of political thought like G. K. Gokhale and Bepin Chandra Pal, and young revolutionaries like Taraknath Das.

She encouraged and whole-heartedly supported the Swadeshi (self-reliance) Movement both in principle and in practice. She helped nationalist groups like the `Dawn Society’ and the `Anusilan Samity’; was a member of the Central Council of Action formed by Sri Aurobindo Ghose and took up the editorship of the Karmayogin publication when he left British India. She wanted the whole nation to learn about India from an Indian perspective rather than foreigners studying India (`Complete Works of Sister Nivedita’, IV, pp. 329-53). She encouraged the study of science, and helped notable Indian scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose in publicising his theories and discoveries. She believed that a rebirth of Indian Art was essential for the regeneration of India. She is said to have inspired Rabindranath Tagore, who later won a Nobel Prize for his tremendous literature.

Nivedita was a unique and important figure in the galaxy of the twentieth century Hindu revivalists and her memory should be enshrined in the hearts of Hindus. Tall and fair, with deep blue eyes and brown hair, Nivedita was an image of purity and austerity in her simple white gown and with a rosary of rudraksha round her neck. A person of intense spirituality, force of character, strength of mind, intellectual power and wide range of studies, she could have achieved distinction in any sphere of life. Yet with unique self-effacement she lived a simple and austere life dedicated to the cause of India and Hinduism, on which the western world had systematically poured contempt.

She was described as `a real lioness’ by Vivekananda, `Lokmata'(the mother of the people) by Rabindranath Tagore, and `Agnisikha’ (the flame of fire) by Aurobindo Ghose. In England she was known as `The Champion for India’, but who above all was a ‘Sister’ to the Indian people whom she loved. Her contribution to the promotion of national consciousness is immeasurable. “My task is to awaken the nation,” she said once. Even today her book ‘Cradle Tales of Hinduism’ is read to children world wide, infusing them with the essence of Hindu consciousness. It was her dream to see in India a true re-establishment of Dharma, that is, national righteousness.

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